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On Freedom To Express, Write, Read And

Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie (b. June 19, 1947), the Indian-born British-American novelist, made a rare public appearance on May 15, 2023, nine months after being stabbed multiple times on a stage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. The attack resulted in his right eye being blinded and nerve damage to his hand in August 2022. While delivering a video message to the British Book Awards, the author warned that Freedom of Expression is currently in its most severe threat in the West in his lifetime.

Rushdie told the audience: “We live in a moment, I think, at which Freedom of Expression, Freedom to Publish, has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the West. Now, I am sitting here in the US, I have to look at the extraordinary attack on libraries, and books for children in schools. The attack on the idea of libraries themselves.” He stressed: “It is quite remarkably alarming, and we need to be very aware of it, and to fight against it very hard.

Rushdie urged the concerned authorities in the West to make sincere efforts in order to safeguard the Freedom of Expression, saying that it would not be possible for writers to freely express their views in the absence of this freedom. He also criticised publishers for making some changes in decades-old books for modern sensibilities. Rushdie believes that large-scale cuts and rewriting the works of children’s author Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, are inappropriate. He asked publishers to allow books “to come to us from their time and be of their time”. Sir Salman further said: “And if that’s difficult to take, don’t read it, read another book.

Rushdie has reminded the audience that literature is a product of a particular period of time. Hence, the characters, stories, dialogues of the past must be accepted wholeheartedly. He strongly argued against re-editing classical literature or popular books in the light of contemporary values. If a publisher decides to omit sections (of a book) that may be objectionable to some readers, then it should be considered as an interference with the author’s Freedom to Write, and the readers’ Freedom to Read, explained Rushdie.

According to Rushdie, James Bond, a fictional character created by British novelist Ian Fleming in 1953, has been portrayed through 27 films so far. Created in the 1950s-60s, Fleming’s Bond is basically a representative of patriarchal and imperialist egoism at his core, who considers the Russians, Turks and Blacks as inferior. Still, Bond is considered a hero mainly because of his extraordinary manhood. Such a character does not attract anybody in the 21st Century. Hence, this character has become more sensitive, human and multi-dimensional in recent films. At the same time, female characters have been brought in to play authoritative roles. Reports suggest that directors have also planned to introduce Black characters in Bond movies. Of course, the filmmakers enjoy this freedom, as movies are commonly known as the director’s medium. However, an attempt to exonerate Fleming’s decades-old novels by re-editing them is not appropriate.

It is quite difficult to ignore Rushdie’s main argument. Biasness, based on class, caste, religion, gender, etc., can never be tolerated in the 21st Century world. Instead, one should respect the dignity of others. It is also not acceptable to be intolerant towards authors. If one omits some words or lines from a story or novel according to her/his own understanding, then the author’s uniqueness is interfered with. Such a move can also be considered as cheating with contemporary and future readers. According to Rushdie, the original work is the heritage of humankind. In other words, the practice of censoring is anti-democratic.

It is evident in history that the Philosophy and Literature written by the victors still exist, while priceless literary creations of the vanquished have been lost. As our past is not error-free, one can find hatred and prejudice in old literary works. Literature comes from life. Therefore, readers have to accept literature with a conscious mind. To bring the desired change in the society, we have to create literature suitable for the contemporary time. It is not a healthy practice to re-edit past works.

Meanwhile, Rushdie received the Freedom to Publish Award on May 15 at the British Book Awards that “acknowledges the determination of authors, publishers and booksellers who take a stand against intolerance, despite the ongoing threats they face“.

It may be noted that Rushdie has been residing in the US for several years following death threats from Iran over his infamous 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. The publication was banned in several countries after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then Supreme Leader of Iran, pronounced a fatwa in 1989, asking the followers of Islam to kill the novelist. Later, the author received the Booker Prize for his novel Midnight’s Children. His most recent work, Victory City, was released in February 2023.

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